Where Did All This Stuff Come From?

Thanksgiving is in a couple of days, so I spent the evening preparing the basement for guests. I organized, picked up Halloween candy wrappers stuffed behind the couch, vacuumed corners that haven’t been vacuumed since this time last year, and generally made the basement look the way that I wished it always looked.

Unfortunately, people live here, and people are messy—especially when they’re six, ten, twelve and nineteen—so I’ve only got a few days to enjoy the cleanliness before life gets in the way, as it always does.

While cleaning I came across some Legos. And then some more Legos. And then some more Legos. They were on the floor, in sandwich bags, stuffed into portable stacks of plastic drawers, and a few were still in the original box. I shoved them all into a corner, and before guests arrive I’ll organize them so they’re not such a mess. But I had writing to do, so that has to wait.

I also found stacks of important papers, books my kids have read, half-a-dozen socks, and a few parts that seem to have fallen off the rabbit’s cage. At one point, as I was on my hands-and-knees, trying to pickup Perler beads from the floor, a question suddenly occurred to me: Where did all this stuff come from, and when did we get it?

We’ve got little Nintendo figures, and Polly Pocket-sized bathtubs, and disposable diaper Velcro repair kits, and a purple candle shaped like a skull that weighs at least five pounds, and countless other things that I never remember buying, winning, inheriting, or digging up.

How do we have so many things?

I found an orange plastic ball that we bought for my oldest son when he was a year old, and he played with that thing for years. I remember that. I know where it came from, I know its history, so when I came across it in the basement, I looked at it with fond memories instead of befuddlement.

But where the hell did we get this plain black belt, the kind with two metal loops at the end, through which you have to route the belt a certain way to keep it tight, or else it comes loose and is completely worthless. I can’t buckle those things for shit, so I know I didn’t buy the damn thing. It looks like the sort of belt I wore in third grade in 1986, but there’s no way I would have kept a belt like that for so long.

If you’re looking for it now it’s in the white garbage bag on the basement floor. It’s right next to an extra couch cushion cover for a couch I’m not sure we ever owned, and two little plastic containers that come out of gumball machines, which someone—my money’s on the six-year-old—decided to shove under one of the couches.

How much of our stuff do we keep just because we’ve always kept it? How many of those things would we actually miss if they disappeared?

I’ve got a stack of New Yorker magazines under the table. I read parts of some of them. When, exactly, do I think I’m going to have time to read the rest of them? If I came home and the magazines were gone, would I even notice? Probably not. Yet I haven’t thrown them away, and if I see someone trying to throw them away, I’ll stop them.

The only thing better than getting stuff is getting rid of stuff. I’m somewhat messy, but I like orderliness. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it just means that I don’t like clutter, yet I’m too lazy or sentimental to get rid of clutter most of the time. But when I do get rid of it, I appreciate the neatness of the uncluttered space.

Jerry Seinfeld once had a bit in which he talked about the idea of buying something and immediately throwing it in the garbage. So you get the satisfaction of getting a new thing, but you also get the satisfaction of getting rid of it. I’m sorry to say that I identify with that.

What really blows my mind is when I think about these things coming into the house. We’ve got to have tens of thousands of individual items (think about all those Legos, or forks, or shirts, or pens, pencils, markers, etc.) in the house. And each one of those things had to be brought in by someone. It didn’t happen at all once. When we brought in some of that stuff we had no idea it’d be around as long as it has been.

Stuff. There’s just so much of it.

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